YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 29, 2010

F.O. Matthiessen: martyr to McCarthyism?

Maude Slye, Edith Atwater, Frank Oppenheimer, Matthiessen, Lillian Hellman

According to Jennifer Burns, historian and biographer of Ayn Rand, F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950) was a victim of McCarthyism, hounded to death by zealous anticommunists. She does not provide evidence for this claim. While reading Ayn Rand’s novels and then two recent biographies, I was struck by the representation of Rand as another Captain Ahab: destructive, bossy, and, though an atheist, something of a Russian Jew. Similarly, Ahab was and continues to occupy the Romantic Wandering Jew archetype in the most important Melville literary studies. Their predecessor was Harvard professor F.  O. Matthiessen, like Charles Olson, a hero to many in the New Left. For the first time on this website, I am looting a section of the seventh chapter of my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, paperback rev. ed. 2006). It reflects my politics at the time of writing, and I would revise it slightly were it to be republished today. What matters is the gross distortion of Moby-Dick that remains perpetuated in both high and popular culture. Ahab is Hitler is Jew is archetypal American, exceptional only in his capacity for mindless destruction of Nature and non-white peoples.

[book excerpt:] Charles Olson’s friend and mentor F.O. Matthiessen participated in Irving Babbitt’s antibourgeois offensive: American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, a monumental study of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman, appeared in 1941; it was the organic synthesis that American literature professors opposed to Marx, Freud, and Parringtonian “economic determinism”[i] had demanded since the mid-1930s (and even earlier). In Professor Merton M. Sealts, Jr.’s view, Matthiessen’s New Criticism [ii] had rescued his generation from the art-erasing politics of Vernon Parrington:

[Sealts letter to me:] In the mid-sixties, shortly after I began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, a graduate student came into my office to tell me, excitedly, that he had discovered a book that would release him from “the tyranny of New Criticism”: Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought! To his surprise I observed that when I was a graduate student (1937-1941) it was New Criticism that had released me from the tyranny of works like Parrington’s…the “history of ideas” approach to American literature that was current in the 1930s had talked about everything except the literary quality of the texts under discussion–either because “literary quality” was supposedly lacking in those texts or because the commentators themselves were unable to recognize it. It was Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941) that assured many of us that what we planned to teach was worth teaching as literature.[iii]

Professor Sealts was clueless about the real project concealed under the rubric of “New Criticism”: the “aestheticism” professed by most of its advocates was directly connected to the organic society that their notion of good poetry subsumed. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/.)

Although he claimed to be fusing history and literature, in practice, the organicist Matthiessen set himself against both disciplines, leaving himself helpless to act either on his own behalf or that of humanity. By removing the study of literature from its “economic, social and religious causes” (but not from “its sources in our life”) and focusing on “what these books are as works of art,” then fulfilling the “double aim…to place these works both in their age and ours,” Matthiessen radically dehistoricized literary texts. One could move forward and backward between T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, or between Ahab and Hitler because historical specificity and concrete institutional referents had been banished: works of art gave birth to other works of art and yet, though fictions, their characters spoke to us today as if freshly minted. Matthiessen’s understanding of social conflict was expressed in timeless dualisms– Reason v. Passion, Good v. Evil, Civilization v. Savagery, or Heart v. Head: these antagonists made literature and history alike, but religion overwhelmed history and political science.

In his draft Introduction to a selection of Melville’s poetry (1944), a penciled addition mapped the Melville problem in the functionalist style as “Melville’s continual concern with the unending struggle, with the tensions between good and evil: within the heart and in the state, political, social, and religious.”[iv] And Matthiessen’s readings of “literary” qualities could be deficient in formal analysis or even accuracy, because he had appropriated nineteenth-century American literature to support the counter-Enlightenment corporatist goals of twentieth century progressive reform, eliminating textual facts that contradicted the lessons to be drawn from such works as Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, all the while (implicitly) distancing himself from Weaver and Mumford by promising to avoid “the direct reading of an author’s personal life into his works” (AR, xii).

Excerpts from drafts and published versions of two major works, American Renaissance (1941) and From The Heart of Europe (1948) clarify Matthiessen’s positions both before and after the war. They seem motivated by the confluence of objectives: a personal and class need for clear, unambiguous, reliable authority (or its simulacrum) and the ideological requirement of his class to moderate the selfishness of upper-class college students lest an unbalanced society continue its path toward disintegration. So Matthiessen evaluated authors and works of art with these standards: symbols should be clear and unequivocal, for (Christian) democratic artists, like other earthy laborers, were craftsmen relating form to function; “individualism” must be tempered by social responsibility. It was Burke against Paine all over again. I will consider his works chronologically, but mostly postponing discussion of From The Heart Of Europe (1948) so that it may be set in the context of other postwar Melvillean pronouncements.[v]

In a book of more than six hundred pages dealing with five major writers and numerous other cultural luminaries of the antebellum period, Matthiessen devoted long sections to Ahab. No previous writer had lavished so much attention on this character, indeed the book was organized around the mad Captain. The preface had ended with a call for artists to abjure [Ahab-ish] anarchy and take the side of the people against the brutal Übermensch who would be limned throughout, while the very last page traced Melville’s progress from the “murky symbols” of Moby-Dick to the “comprehensive symbols” of Abraham and Isaac, Vere and Billy, as if Isaac’s life had not been spared by the Jewish God. In his early unbalanced writings Melville was really the Head person Ahab, not Ishmael and not yet Vere, the Heart person who understood Necessity. Matthiessen had written “…in spite of Melville’s enthusiasm for discovery and revolt [in Mardi], no depth of feeling has fused his instances with his abstractions” (early draft, 153). Instead of the dispassionate assessment of literary qualities that had been promised, Matthiessen delivered a stern rebuke to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century man: there were distortions of the text to support the hostile characterization of Melville/Ahab and to convince readers (and perhaps himself) that Melville was finally the democratic hero Billy who rightly blessed Captain Vere. I still wonder how Matthiessen, a man still revered by academic radicals as a martyr to McCarthyism, could have believed in his own writing.

For instance, the celebrated Father Edward T. Taylor, Methodist preacher to sailors at the Bethel Church in Boston’s disreputable North End, was the source for Father Mapple and identified as an “ex-seaman,” (AR, 127) but not as a protester of Lemuel Shaw’s positions regarding enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. [vi] Since Mapple and Ahab (if not always Taylor) were both proponents of the higher law and the “inexorable self” standing up to evil earthly powers, Matthiessen had erased a fact that would have suggested Ahab as an anti-racist, as a man leading a revolution against illegitimate authority on behalf of, not against, the common man. For Matthiessen, the “Keel of the Ages” in Mapple’s Sermon was not Ahab’s Keel, the conscience that informed the struggle for universal human rights, but the “equilibrium” between “sense impressions and his reflective mind” that Melville had achieved, for a change, in Moby-Dick (AR, 128). Father Taylor was mentioned throughout the book as a positive figure, perhaps because, as Emerson had noted, he had unified a diverse congregation at Concord in 1845 (127); spiced with the salty vernacular, his sermons had followed Matthiessen’s prescriptions for a rooted democratic intellectual discourse, appealing to “black and white, poet and grocer, contractor and lumberman….”[vii]

Matthiessen transmitted more serious distortions of the text, none of which, to my knowedge, has been noted by Melville scholars. Referring to the confrontation between Ahab and Starbuck on the quarter-deck, after Ahab nails the gold doubloon to the mast, bribing and hypnotizing the crew into joining his hunt for Moby Dick, Matthiessen described Ahab’s heartless and obsessive vengefulness through the eyes of “powerless” Starbuck:

[Matthiessen:] At the moment of the initial announcement of his vengeance, he rises to a staggering hubris as he shouts, “Who’s over me?” Starbuck, powerless before such madness, can only think: “Horrible old man! Who’s over him he cries;–ay, he would be a democrat to all above; look how he lords it over all below!” Yet Starbuck is forced not simply to resent but to pity him, since he reads in the lurid eyes the captain’s desperation (448).

Matthiessen has erased both content and order: the text states “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is Ahab’s response to Starbuck’s accusation of vengeance and blasphemy. Ahab unmistakably announced that the whale hunt was not what it seemed. The text shows Ahab/Melville reproaching Starbuck’s philistinism, telling him to “hark” below the surface of the statement, as Ahab and other modern artists deploy analytic skills to discover the truth and to know themselves: Ahab’s speech is a call to revolution against illegitimate authority, but also a challenge to sincerely Christian readers harkening to Father Mapple’s higher law, in this case conservative New England’s complicity with the slave power. Moreover, Starbuck’s response to Ahab occurs in Chapter 38 (“Dusk”), not immediately after Ahab’s exclamation as Matthiessen implies.[viii] In my view, Starbuck feels invaded, but as a Christian, irresistibly tied to Ahab’s charismatic idea–in Starbuck’s later words, with “soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed….” Starbuck’s initial response had been anger. Ahab noted that his passion had melted Starbuck’s usual icy incomprehension expressed in “an intolerable…doltish stare.” Ahab says compassionately, “my heart has melted thee to anger-glow,” then he (ambiguously?) apologizes: “I meant not to incense thee.” Perhaps the lurid eyes belonged to Matthiessen reading a double-message and had to be disowned. Similarly, “the queenly personality” who feels her royal rights, Ahab’s self-description and challenge to an indifferent and cruel deity in “Candles,” is negatively interpreted. Without quoting the source in the text, Matthiessen described what Ahab means by “queenly”: “The resources of the isolated man, his courage and his staggering indifference to anything outside himself, had seldom been exalted so high.” Matthiessen’s obliteration of the Milton-Melville connection in favor of Shakespeare-Melville made the task easier.[ix]

The Ahab-Starbuck interchange sums up the Melville Revival: a possibly ambivalent representation of radical Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions has been caricatured by conservatives. In their readings, the antagonists are bad Jews (the Hebrew prophets, Melville, narcissists, monomaniacs, abolitionists, modern women, materialists as either classical liberals or socialists) and overpowered bad Christians (Melvillains, as Merton Sealts Jr. calls himself and his colleagues), bad because they are seduced where they should struggle to resist. In all fairness, Starbuck should not pity Ahab: Matthiessen says Starbuck’s pity was forced. This shocking recognition of Ahab’s comprehensive cunning could lead to suicide to smother the bad Jew within gentlefolk like Matthiessen, or in the less gentle, the image of the “switching” Jew could rationalize social violence. Note that Matthiessen’s example of “the great artist” was T. S. Eliot, not Melville/Ahab, though he quoted Melville’s approbation of Hawthorne’s “usable truth” before this tribute to Eliot:

[Matthiessen:] Such steady inspection of life, which does not flinch from probing sinister recesses and is determined to make articulate the whole range of what it finds, is indispensable for the great artist. Only thus can he cut through conventional appearances and come into possession of what Eliot has called “a sense of his own age” (AR, 192-193).

Eliot is praised for the qualities Matthiessen lacked in himself, and that are abundantly demonstrated in the materialist Ahab, but here have been misapplied to the corporatist Eliot, enemy to freethinking Jews whose corrosive intellects dissolve natural ethnic, today, communitarian, bonds. The English Tories with whom Eliot bonded were paternalistic agrarians, relentless opponents to the rising industrial bourgeoisie that threatened to displace them. Their counterparts in 1930s America were Southern Agrarians, champions of the New Criticism and, like Harvard professors of American literature, supporters of Roosevelt. In a revealingly erroneous reading of Clarel (AR, 495), Matthiessen, like Willard Thorp before him, confused the merchant Rolfe with the ex-Southerner Ungar, the expatriate mercenary for the Turks, even though Melville had not blurred their identities in his text.[x] To be sure, Ungar had earlier expressed passionate criticisms of “Anglo-Saxon” imperialism, Mammon, and the brutal factory system (AR, 401), but so did the Tories of Young England. Expressing the concerns of other Jeffersonians, Melville had written:

The vast reserves–the untried fields;

These long shall keep off and delay

The class war, rich-and-poor-man fray

Of history. From that alone

Can serious trouble spring. Even that

Itself, this good result may own–

The first firm founding of the state.’ (4.21, 91-96)

Matthiessen had, in effect, made the reactionary Ungar (bearer of “a strain of Indian blood” and “the Catholic mind” or, in Poems, “the Latin mind though no longer in the Church”) a proto-socialist. This is an interesting ideological point since Melville’s character Rolfe was a well-traveled and thoughtful autodidact; his antidemocratic and antisemitic views link him to the organic conservatism of Christian Socialists like Melville’s contemporary Charles Kingsley, author of Alton Locke (1850). Rolfe muses whether or not the outcome of class conflict would be a more stable, legitimate, social order, paternalistically concerned with the condition of labor.[xi] Perhaps reflecting his own state of mind, Matthiessen continued his discussion of “Ungar’s” prediction of the coming socialism with the pessimistic judgment that the lower orders are uncontrollable and overly susceptible to false promises and flattery:

[Matthiessen:] Although Ungar glimpses that possible synthesis, he has little confidence in it. In his view popular ignorance often increases as society ‘progresses,’ and masterless men who have foregone all recognition of evil within themselves, are easy prey for demagogues. He holds that only an awareness of Original Sin can give significance to man’s struggle; and the last that is seen of him by Clarel, he is riding off with “that strange look/ Of one enlisted for sad fight/ Upon some desperate dark shore”(495).

Matthiessen’s apotheosis of Billy Budd’s sacrifice is the elixir soothing Ungar’s despair. The converted Melville “has come to respect necessity,” a fact proven by Melville’s check of a passage from “Peter Schlemihl”: “Afterwards I became reconciled to myself. I learnt, in the first place, to respect necessity” (note, 510). Such a mark, taken by itself, proves nothing. Although moody, Melville did not rest in Ungar’s pessimism. He did understand that history forces certain problems and constraints upon us; moreover, as any moralist would, he grappled throughout life with the ambiguous connection between freedom and necessity, structure and agency. But Matthiessen wants to convince the reader that Melville approves of Vere’s action in hanging Billy. Following earlier conservative readings, Matthiessen praised the Plinlimmonish balance achieved at the end of Melville’s life: he had grown out of the “angry defiance” of Pierre and The Confidence-Man (AR, 511); he cites Vere’s death without “accents of remorse” as proof that “Melville could now face incongruity; he could accept the existence of both good and evil with a serenity impossible to him in Moby-Dick” (draft, 819, AR, 512, “serenity” changed to “calm”). This judgment is further strengthened, pressing the unrighteous moralist Mapple’s inexorable self into Ahab’s materialist savagery:

[Matthiessen:] Vere is the wise father, terribly severe but righteous. No longer does Melville feel the fear and dislike of Jehovah that were oppressing him throughout Moby-Dick and Pierre. He is no longer protesting against the determined laws as being savagely inexorable. He has come to respect necessity (AR, 510). [xii]

Matthiessen had suppressed Melville’s delegitimating remark upon the occasion of Vere’s death from the musket ball shot from the Athée. In Melville’s text, Vere “dropped to the deck” just like Claggart, then the narrator comments, “The spirit that ’spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame.” For Melville, Vere’s lack of remorse stemming from secret ambition was the black mark linking him to the ambitious, lying Claggart, but this evil character is connected to Ahab, not Vere, in Matthiessen’s reading (AR, 505). Captain Vere’s “rectitude” as he announces the verdict that Billy must hang reminded Matthiessen of the eighteenth-century Protestant minister Jonathan Edwards (whose name Melville had written in the margin to pinpoint “the Calvinistic text” preached to a dumb “congregation of believers in hell”):

[Matthiessen:] …the deepest need for rapaciously individualistic America [embodied throughout in Ahab] was a radical affirmation of the heart. He knew that his conception of the young sailor’s “essential innocence” was in accord with no orthodoxy; but he found it ‘an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.’…After all he had suffered Melville could endure to the end in the belief that though good goes down to defeat and death, its radiance can redeem life. His career did not fall into what has been too often assumed to be the pattern for the lives of our artists: brilliant beginnings without staying power, truncated and broken by our hostile environment. Melville’s endurance is a reinvigorating challenge for a later America (“reinvigorating” only in final draft, 819, AR, 513-14).

This was the conversion narrative, pure and simple. The later Americans should flee from wayward Prometheans like Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingworth and Ethan Brand, criminal precursors to Ahab, catastrophically possessed by their “proud lonely will[s]” (AR, 449-50, FHE, 30), to the open arms of Captain Vere, i.e., to the reinvigorating submission that Melville had mocked as ignoble servility in White-Jacket, a book Matthiessen rated as “running close to a tract of protest”(285).[xiii] Matthiessen’s final comments on Vere (and Coleridge) had linked the text to the America of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact when the Anglo-American libertarianism of the radical bourgeoisie was once again off-limits to the Stalinist Left.

During the early and mid-1940s, the post-Weaver separation of Melville from Ahab energized by Mumford, Thorp and Matthiessen continued. An ominously antimodern, somewhat anti-Jewish article in College English (1943) moved Henry W. Wells of Columbia into his colleague Weaver’s territory, promoting Clarel at the expense of Moby-Dick. The following year, Wells, like Thorp, presented Melville as a moderate democrat, not the aristocratic rebel of Weaver’s biography.[xiv] Charles Olson, writing Call Me Ishmael after these judgments, again modified his reading of Ahab. In his earlier essay, “Lear and Moby-Dick” (1938) Ahab was condemned for the “solipsism which brings down a world,” while the crew participates in the “citizenship of human suffering”: this is Melville’s (Lear’s and Job’s) “meaning” (186, 189).[xv] Olson seemed to be pessimistically criticizing democratic leadership, but with respect for the crew. Call Me Ishmael (1947) more explicitly took on (protofascist) mass politics, linking Ahab’s “Conjur Man” destructiveness to heartless, Ethan Brand-style Enlightenment Reason:

[Charles Olson:] Melville was no naive democrat. He recognized the persistence of the “great man” and faced, in 1850, what we have faced in the twentieth century. At the time of the rise of the common man Melville wrote a tragedy out of the rise and fall, of uncommon Ahab…[T]he common man, however free, leans on a leader, the leader, however dedicated, leans on a straw [reason, the brain, C.S.]. (64)…In exactly what way Ahab, furious and without fear, retained the instrument of his reason as a lance to fight the White Whale is a central concern of Melville’s in Moby-Dick. In his Captain there was a diminution in his heart (72).

Similarly, Willard Thorp’s contribution to The Literary History of the United States (1948) abandoned Pierre: no longer a flawed but “fascinating book” (1938, lxxvii), it is “not a perfect book. It is not even a good one, judged by any standards” (458). Thorp’s other assessments returned with a new emphasis on the importance of Clarel and Billy Budd. Melville’s dangerous sympathies with the wantonly self-directed Ahab’s untrammeled curiosity and materialism had been averted; “private hurts” had been “healed” by the Civil War. The Epilogue to Clarel proved that Melville had chosen broad-minded Rolfe (468) over the antidemocrats, Mortmain and Ungar. In fact, the regenerated writer had come to a serene and manful end in all his Epilogues: the Epilogue to Moby-Dick proved that “young Ishmael” had seen through and rejected Ahab (461); from the Civil War poems onward, Melville had “worked his way to the solid ground on which he finally stood when he wrote Billy Budd” (404). For many liberal critics, the story has been either ambiguous or a thinly-veiled ironic antiwar protest written from the Left; as Hayford and Sealts have shown in their genetic reconstruction of the text (1962), Melville himself increased the polarity between Claggart and Billy. (In the earliest version, Billy is a sexually experienced older man, a guilty mutineer. Gradually he becomes the child-like naif. The poem “Billy in the Darbies” was written first, resulting in some disjuncture between the poem and the final version of the narrative.) For Thorp, however, the sharp division between the naturally depraved, monomaniacal, and subversive Claggart and naturally innocent Billy had shattered the “fetters” of ambiguity, as perhaps it had done for Melville-in-retreat. The brainy mixture of good and evil, “the strange union under the eaves” (457) that had chained Pierre to immobility (470), was finally unmuddied.[xvi]

[Harrison Hayford to Tyrus Hillway, co-founder of The Melville Society, 25 Jan. 1945:] I met [Merton Sealts] wandering in a daze one day just outside the Toasty, and he said “Either Melville is crazy or I am, or someone is.”

In the process of conflating corporatism with democracy, Thorp had, like Matthiessen, cleanly separated the good, questing, submissive adolescent (the redeemed Ishmael-Billy) and the bad father (Ahab-Claggart). The rhetoric Thorp applied to Billy and Claggart implied that their genetic inheritance was dissimilar: the difference between Aryan Billy and the black-hearted monster Claggart was perceived in virtually racial terms. The connection Melville had drawn between the two quasi-lunatics Claggart and Vere, however, was invisible. And Billy was good in Thorp’s reading because he understood the necessity for heroic self-sacrifice when Vere (Order, not Truth) demanded it. Thorp had consistently assimilated Melville’s career to the conversion narrative. The same gesture had bolstered the hegemonic humanities line contrasting Western democracy with German autocracy or Bolshevism, following the ideology of the Columbia University “War Issues” course devised to build support for American participation in World War I and continued in the plans for the Jefferson Memorial, 1939.[xvii] This might have been an honest contrast had not the corporatists been as intent as Nazi and Stalinist bureaucrats in treating the contagious Lockean and Jeffersonian ideas of the American Revolution, turning these radical thinkers upside down to invert slavery and freedom, reinstating the Great Chain of Being to heal wasted liberals.[xviii] By bringing ethnopluralism into the discussion of psychological warfare in the Melville Revival, I am saying that the core conflict between the wars was not democracy versus totalitarianism or autocracy; rather, the forces of modernity were arrayed against those of reaction, even inside “democratic” countries and often inside individuals. Reactionaries might or might not represent themselves as progressives. I have tried to clarify the dispute by deploying the distinction between “rootless cosmopolitans” (exponents of urbanized industrial, scientific society) and rooted cosmopolitans (exponents of small town life with pre-capitalist social relations). English and American Fascist writers of the 1930s made this distinction explicit.[xix]

After the war, Matthiessen and Alfred Kazin taught American literature in Austria and Czechoslovakia, describing their topic as the age of Whitman and Melville. Since both men wanted to teach Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, they divided their groups, Matthiessen discussing Melville followed by Henry James, while Kazin’s Melville was followed by Henry Adams. Matthiessen turned the journal of his fascinating and informative European experiences into a book, From The Heart of Europe (1948), with the published version forced to deal with the recent Soviet actions that had destroyed the independent democratic socialist state of Czechoslovakia, actions that were pending while Matthiessen was still there and for which he became an apologist. Matthiessen (whose father and grandfather had become wealthy through the applied sciences) felt he should explain why he never became a Marxist:

[Matthiessen:] I am a Christian, not through my haphazard upbringing but by conversion conviction while at Yale, and I find an[y] materialism inadequate. I make no pretense to being a theologian, but I have been influenced by the same Protestant revival that has been voiced most forcefully in America by Reinhold Niebuhr. That is to say, I have rejected the nineteenth-century belief in every man as his own Messiah, along with the other aberrations of that century’s individualism; and have accepted again the doctrine of Original Sin, in the sense that man is fallible and limited, no matter what his social system, and capable of finding completion only through humility before the love of God.[xx]

The cross-outs suggest that Matthiessen had no religion before he attended Yale, and that he was searching for the security of a clear, consistent set of rules. The rest of the statement is a grotesque Hume-style caricature of seventeenth-century left-wing Protestantism that is conflated with the most buccaneering irreligious capitalism and then made symbol for the entire nineteenth century. But he was “a radical democrat,” an admirer of Walt Whitman and Lenin (draft, p.10). In spite of its flaws, we should accept the Russian Revolution because “…the Russians have not been deflected from the right of all to share in the common wealth.” As for the disappointed libertarian Czechs, they really were moving toward socialism, despite apparent reverses. They should understand that

[Matthiessen:] Freedom can be gained and protected only by groups functioning together, with their sense of social responsibility as highly developed as their sense of individual privilege. That is what I understand by the definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity (FHE, 142).

In a passage that reiterated the primary thesis of American Renaissance (and derived from the aesthetic theories of Herder, Wordsworth and Coleridge), Matthiessen nostalgically described the role of art in primitive societies. Art best functioned as release:

[Matthiessen:] This knowledge is common in primitive societies where the role both of the medicine man and of the ritualistic priest or poet is to exorcise the evil spirit and to invoke the good spirit by naming them. The naming must be exact, and it requires all the magical skills of the artist, all his control over words to make them become one with the thing…the primitive exorcism by naming life even as it is in its worst moments, and thus releasing us from fear of the unnamed and unknown (FHE, 49).

Melville is not listed among the dark modern figures that provide a similar salutary catharsis: Hamlet, Schopenhauer, Leopardi, and Kafka. Matthiessen also distanced himself from fellow lecturer Lyman Bryson, who had criticized “mechanical Stalinists” and the “Hollywood mass producer” [sic] alike, both of whom were committed to “official versions of life” (draft, 66, FHE, 51-53). These statements, taken together and in tandem with American Renaissance, strongly suggest that Matthiessen was always frightened by the introspection and social inspection that discloses contradictions between signifiers and the signified, the critical process represented by Ahab’s leaps into the unknown, from light into darkness, into disillusion with father figures, thence into Pierre’s ambiguous choice to merge with Isabel, ambiguous not because of elusive or necessarily contaminated “truth,” but only with regard to the writer’s self-interest. Where would it all lead? Would the innocent be sacrificed in the effluent of righteous action? So Matthiessen preferred to melt into the mass and worship necessity.

He had been re-reading Moby-Dick: it was the book he most wanted to talk about in his trip to Europe; the emphasis on racial equality (that he had almost forgotten) had deeply moved him, but the auspicious beginning had been undermined by Melville’s submission to Ahab:

[Matthiessen:]…his ejaculation of the ‘divine equality’ among men was not borne out by what happened. Even the friendship between Queequeg and Ishmael was dwarfed and lost sight of in the portrayal of Captain Ahab’s indomitable will. The single individual, a law only to himself, treats his entire crew as mere appendages to his own ruthless purpose, and sweeps them all finally to destruction. No more challenging counter-statement to Emerson’s self-reliance had yet been written. No more penetrating scrutiny could have been made of the defects of individualism, of the tragedy that ensues when man conceives proudly of himself as pitted against the mass, instead of finding the fulfillment of his nature through interdependence with his fellow-men (FHE 36-37).

This characterization may not jibe with the text: Was Ahab pitted against the mass, or was that Ishmael’s and Starbuck’s reading? Melville’s long-suppressed annotations to Paradise Lost (along with remarks in his published letters and the not-so-muffled protest that he telegraphs throughout) indicated that he was writing under censorship; moreover he had no use for demagogues and mobs or frontier rowdiness and brutality. Melville’s marginalia strongly suggest that Ahab was the necessarily masked modern artist, the Promethean who would, however abandoned and mutilated by God and his fellows, stand alone if necessary, to speak truth to power; he was also speaking to posterity so that his less perceptive and more deferential fellows might one day be emancipated from illegitimate authority. Matthiessen’s Ishmaelite/Anglo-Catholic interpretation of Ahab’s motives rhymed exactly with the picture of the cynical demagogue Hitler disseminated by his colleagues Henry Murray and Gordon Allport in their worksheets on morale (1941). In 1948, Matthiessen praised the student with Heart and buried the [Head] whose views of Ahab diverged from the official story:

[Matthiessen:] In the final session of our discussion group [in Czechoslovakia] Vladimir Kosina raised the topic, “What is there in Moby Dick that would not have been written by anyone except an American?’ Several ideas were picked up from our earlier sessions: the author’s immersion in everyday experience, the union of work and intellect that we had found in Thoreau, Whitman’s kind of belief in the common man. One girl felt that Ahab was a thoroughly American hero in his determination, no matter what the obstacles, to do what he set out to do…. Some sentences from these students’ final essays were very impressive. Bohumil Seidl, after analyzing the basis for Ahab’s tragedy and finding it in the absolute ruthlessness of will that mistook its own desires for divine command, concluded: “The central moral problem in Moby Dick, the relation between will and feeling, particularly appeals to us who, not long ago, had opportunity to experience the disastrous consequences of a strong will in Germany, the will to power, surrounded by mythology and absolutely shorn of human feeling”[xxi] (my emph.).

The one unnamed girl who read Ahab as a positive figure is barely visible because Matthiessen preferred corporatist formulations of the causes of World War II, in Bohumil Seidl’s “very impressive” instance blatantly identifying a nation of American Ahabs with Nazi Head people. For Heart people, triumphant fascism as the outcome of class conflict, economic crisis, Stalinist tactics, and appalling sectarianism in the German Left is invisible.[xxii]

Such confusion is consistent with the counter-Enlightenment views of T.S. Eliot, Matthiessen’s ideal of positive intellectuality (though he later disavowed Eliot’s refusal of social action, FHE, 82). Matthiessen, like Mumford, Olson, and Thorp before him, was supporting the Tory “Melville” they inferred from the later texts. Ersatz critical tools left them helpless in the face of preventable disasters. “Starbuck” was periodically depressed. The conclusion to the life of Matthiessen was a leap from the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel room in 1950.[xxiii] Harvard English professor Kenneth Murdock wrote to Perry Miller after Matthiessen’s suicide:

[Murdock:] Matty’s nervous depression had been growing steadily more intense all winter, and he seemed to have lost any ability to conquer it by will. His friends urged him to see doctors, but he could not bring himself to do so, and I’m afraid his last months were spent in great anguish and loneliness. His friends did everything they could to help him, but he found it more and more difficult to see people and, I suppose, contributed to his final collapse by keeping steadily at work on his writing and sparing himself nothing. [xxiv]

[Added 12-29-10: Matthiessen's lover Russell Cheney died after the war, exacerbating the depression "Matty" had experienced during the late 1930s.]   The Harvard community of humanists, with all their erudition and accumulated wisdom, could neither help their friend nor in any rational manner explain the horrendous conflicts of this century. In the war between passion and reason, passion won out; Matty lacked the self-control that would moderate his austerity. His colleague William Ellery Sedgwick (1899-42) had earlier (probably) committed suicide; his unfinished study Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, edited by Sedgwick’s widow Sarah Cabot Sedgwick and Theodore Spencer, was published by Harvard in 1944. Henry Murray reported that Mrs. Sedgwick blamed Melville’s Pierre for her husband’s death. But an unpublished poem by Sedgwick, “The Dark House,” suggests that Tory anti-intellectualism was the symptom of excessive self-denial in the service of class rule. It bred despair, isolation and emptiness, not the camaraderie and sane amelioration that the Heart people had professed. This is the poem as written in Sedgwick’s hand: [xxv]

Scribners 1932-36

Stands in the darkness

on the stairs

of the dark house

a life so young–he stands there

tiptoe to question;

stands in the darkness on a stair

makes tentative the silence there.

and near him there

(no where)

chipped by a clock

bright moments fly

upward;

are there only dark hours

and he waits for me.

Across the obscure accumulation of my days

and undecided ways

he waits.

And I’ll not come;

out of the emptiness I’d bring

I should not answer anything.

P.C.  Where I have been he is;

Where I shall be, he is before

and where he asks no more.

The questing Enlightenment mind lives with ambiguity and uncertainty: formulations of moral action in a secular world are necessarily experimental and provisional; we adjust received notions of morality to things as they really are, and the things might be strange indeed, nutty enough to merit structural transformations. While Melville found this lively habit of mind excitingly adventuresome (though it also gave him pause), these were exactly the “tragic” qualities that made Sedgwick and Matthiessen nervous. Similarly, “uncertainty” was the deadly enemy to social coherence in the worksheets devised by Murray and Allport to boost civilian morale before and after the war, even as they affixed the word “provisional” to their specific recommendations. Hitler felt the same way, and devised his theory of propaganda to forestall ambiguity, for this greyness made it impossible to mobilize support for wars to save the planet from Jewish or German Objektivitätsfimmel, the brain-buzz or craze for objectivity that made it hard to establish the harmonious “people’s community,” reunited because rescued from vertiginous, Jewishly instigated, internal contradictions. In his own words, Hitler explained that he was simplifying but not falsifying his messages; the masses were too irrational to cope with the finer points of such pivotal issues as German responsibility for the Great War. This congruence between Nazi and American propaganda was not concealed by Murray and Allport. Indeed, they imitated (almost) the totalizing propaganda of the Nazis:

[Worksheets, Murray and Allport:] The propaganda campaign must be based on a total view of the situation, expressed in an ideological language almost as inclusive as that of the Communists or the Nazis themselves. From the perspective of this ideology, all specific news items should be interpreted, so that they acquire significance beyond themselves and are seen as part of a coherent drama of dynamic forces. Radio programs of propaganda and propaganda leaflets should not be showered off hit or miss; perhaps at cross-purposes, and probably without effect, but should converge upon the master interpretation of the forces involved in the war. Only with a definite rationale, adhered to over a long period of time, can our propaganda have a cumulative effect and thus finally play an important role in the defeat of the enemy (p.2, worksheet on Psychological Warfare).

Harvard professors of American history and literature were joined to American, Nazi, and Communist social pathologists in their pedagogy of the paranoid sublime, the good fight between godly faith and demonic disbelief. But theirs was the destructive method they consistently attributed to wicked Ahab and the equally adolescent Pierre whose universalist ethics the corporatists had transmuted to absolutist domination while disseminating their own, preferred, “master interpretation.” By contrast with Ahab and Pierre, Matthiessen and his counterparts were pluralists of the blood and soil variety. Like Murray and Allport, Matthiessen wished for a modicum of diversity-with-integration, not fusion; we should rewrite our history. Concurring in the important revision of American nationality advanced by Randolph Bourne (1916) and Horace Kallen (1924), Matthiessen urged that the cultural domination of the old Anglo-Saxon elites be repudiated, and moreover:

[Matthiessen:] By making Americans more aware of the diversified strains from which we have come, it would enable us to know more about the rest of the world, and it could help to provide us with the international understanding we so much need now in fulfilling our unaccustomed but unavoidable role as a world power (FHE, 125-126, my emph.).

NOTES:

[i]               104. “Economic determinism” as used by the moderates studied here does not refer to an economic model that neglects the force of religion or other ideas in history. Rather, it signifies the ideas of the “mechanical materialists”:  the philosophes who spawned the mob-driven French Revolution. See Harry Hayden Clark, Thomas Paine, 1944. Clark’s consensus-building project is clearly directed toward separating Paine from the radical Enlightenment and from radical puritanism, while making him the standard bearer of American idealism and cultural freedom. Clark asks the reader to scrutinize Paine’s writing where he will discover Paine’s belief in science as revelation of natural order and harmony, rhyming exactly with the goals of progressive New Dealers (though the analogy is never exactly drawn). Readers could substitute the Axis powers for Paine’s Tory Britain or ancient Hebrew royalists.

[ii]               105. See the admiring essay by New Leftist George Abbott White, “Ideology and Literature: American Renaissance and F.O.Matthiessen,” Literature in Revolution, eds. George Abbott White and Charles Newman (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1972), 430-500, in a volume dedicated to Matthiessen; White attempts to separate him from other New Critics (considered today to be conservative).

[iii]              106. Merton M. Sealts to me, 20 June 1987. Sealts, a Stanley Williams student, is one of the leading Melvilleans and the scholar who completed the Olson project to reconstitute Melville’s library. Sealts, however, denies that he was a New Critic, but eclectic: “…my approach to…”I and My Chimney” combined the biographical orientation then current among Melvilleans with the new discipline of close reading (picked up from New Criticism) and an interest in symbolism deriving from such critics as Eliot and Wilson Knight.” Cf. Robert Spiller’s review of  Matthiessen’s book in American Literature 13 ( Mar.-Jan.1941-42): 432-435. Spiller commended his critical method which reconciled aestheticism and historicism through organic form (“a modern functionalism”). While advocating an extreme determinism (“masterworks” are entirely caused by (great?) “social and philosophical forces”), Matthiessen had rescued artists and literary history from the economic determinists: “those historians who evaluate literature in terms of its content of communism, agrarian democracy, Puritanism, materialistic determinism, or other borrowed ism. The central pole of reference is esthetic significance.” But see H. Lark Hall, V.L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1994) where Parrington’s views are linked to those of Henry Adams, Randolph Bourne and other native born radicals (i.e. the corporatists described in my study).

[iv]              107. F.O. Matthiessen Papers, Box 6, Houghton Library, Harvard University. These sentences ended his Introduction to Herman Melville Selected Poems (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1944), a work dedicated to the late William Ellery Sedgwick. The published version changed the word “heart” to “mind.” Cf. the NEH project proposal for a Documentary Film on the Life and Work of Herman Melville, authored by George H. Wolfe. In a letter of 12 Feb. 1979 Wolfe (of the University of Alabama) asked Jay Leyda to join consultants Richard H. Fogle, Harrison Hayford, and Howard Vincent. The NEH application states that the film will treat “Melville’s relentless search to unravel the meaning of meaning and the nature of good and evil…his brilliant examination of the human condition…For Melville is concerned with nothing if not with the way men make ethical choices (and live with the results), engage life fully (or fail to), and deal with the ambiguous possibilities of good and evil in human affairs…his cosmic debates with himself about the nature of man. These interior battles bisect his life and work until finding some sort of odd solace in the final brilliance of Billy Budd.” That social cohesion was on Wolfe’s mind is indicated by his definition of Melville’s context: formation, dissolution, reformation of union. The proposal also mentions a third narrative voice, Lizzie, who will provide information about “Herman’s black moods, his monomaniacal writing habits, the state of his health, the progress of his literary works, his finances, and so forth.” Nathaniel Hawthorne is the most important single influence on Melville’s art; the Bible and Milton are not mentioned. See Leyda Papers, NYU.

[v]               108. Cf. The Harvard Report, General Education in a Free Society, 1945, 110-115. Matthiessen is mentioned in the acknowledgments as having either aided the Harvard Report or served on a sub-committee. Their recommendations for methods in high school teaching of English (“language and literature”) include these vague yet balanced strictures meant to emancipate students from both ignorance and faction-making critical habits: “Among prevailing trends to be discouraged in the study of literature, it would list: Stress on factual content as divorced from design. Emphasis on literary history, on generalizations as to periods, tendencies and ready-made valuations–in place of deeper familiarity with the texts. Strained correlations with civics, social studies. Overambitious technical analysis of structure, plot, figurative language, prosody, genre. Use of critical terms (Romanticism, Realism, Classical, Sentimental) as tags coming between the reader and the work. Didacticism: lessons in behavior too closely sought. These dangers are familiar to reflective teachers, as are their opposite extremes: Superficial reading of too much, with no close knowledge of either the content or its import. Lack of any aids to the understanding of what is being read. Indifference to or ignorance of techniques of literature. Avoidance of critical terms and appraisals when the student is ready for them. Irresponsible attitude to the implications of what is being read.” The authors then recommend “abridgement and selective editing” to make great works accessible to general readers. Imagine the “moderate” reader of this report, asked to determine what is too much or too little in her interventions.

[vi]              109. See Charles H. Foster, “Something In Emblems”: Citing Gilbert Haven and Hon. Thomas Russell, Father Taylor, The Sailor Preacher (Boston: H.B. Russell, 1872), especially Chapter XV, “In Reforms,” Foster argued that Taylor (originally a Virginian brought up among slaves) went back and forth on the abolition question and was an unlikely model for the ultra-abolitionist Mapple. But as the nineteenth-century authors (one a minister, the other Collector of the Port of Boston) more precisely put it, “…he shot back and forward between the contending hosts and ideas, faithful alike to his two central forces,–love of ideal truth, love of organic form. Truth must not shatter form: organism must not stifle truth” (250). Here is the double-bind constantly encountered and identified by Melville as I have argued throughout. Yet Taylor could not stomach the Fugitive Slave Act. His biographers report this conversation: “…just after the passage of the “Fugitive Slave Law,” he was standing at the door of the Methodist Bookstore, No.5 Cornhill, and Rev. Thomas Whittemore, the leading Universalist preacher, who was a very strong abolitionist, was passing. “Well,” said Father Taylor,” Brother Whittemore, are you and I going to turn slave-catchers and do the dirty work of these miserable man-thieves?” “No, said Mr. Whittemore, very indignantly. “No, no!” “No, no!” said Father Taylor, with greater emphasis, clapping him warmly on his back: “we’ll see them all in hell first; won’t we, Brother Whittemore?” (253-254).

Melville’s conservative narrators fit comfortably into the popular evangelical protestant culture of his day. The Bethel Church was funded by members of the Unitarian merchant class of Boston, and its purpose was conversion and moral uplift, not the politicizing of the sailor congregation. Taylor, a former sailor and circuit-rider, ardently defended Church and State (laws were inevitably imperfect, being the creation of devil-infested man, 175). With the example of successful mutinies before them (192), captains were asked to sacrifice their natural propensities to tyrannize sailors; while sailors were asked by Taylor, ever the temperance crusader, to give up drink and promiscuity (that were not only impoverishing their wives and children, but infecting and debauching heathen populations that missionaries sought to Christianize), to adhere strictly to duty, with a blissful heavenly reward in sight. One observer, John Ross Dix, described the one painting in the Bethel that transmits the message: “[The Church] is small and neat,–the only ornament being a large painting at the back of the pulpit, representing a ship in a stiff breeze off a lee shore, we believe; for we are not seaman enough to be certain on this point. High over the mast-head are dark storm-clouds, from one of which a remarkably small angel is seen, with outstretched arms, –the celestial individual having just flung down a golden anchor bigger than itself, to aid the ship in its extremity, we presume, although there is attached to the said anchor but a few inches of California cable, which for any practical purpose would not be of the slightest use. However, we must not be critical on allegories; and perhaps many a sailor now on the great deep has pleasant recollections of the picture: if so, a thousand such anachronisms might well be pardoned” (357-358). Another sailor-preacher, Enoch Mudge, was suggested by Jay Leyda as the source for Father Mapple (see below). The Historical Note to the N/N Moby-Dick, discussing the paucity of real-life models for Melville’s characters, names a sailor, Backus, as the source for Pip, then states “(The only convincing exception is Father Mapple, for whom Father Edward Taylor of Boston supplied more than a hint)” (636). We are not told why the editors are convinced. In his Melville biography, Hershel Parker mentions both Mudge and Taylor, but does not specify their politics.

[vii]             110. Matthiessen was quoting Emerson.  Haven and Russell, Father Taylor, are unclear on the integration question. One observer, pro-abolitionist Harriet Martineau, saw segregation at Bethel: “There is one great drawback in the religious services of his chapel. There is a gallery just under the roof for persons of color; and ‘the seed-carriers of the world’ are thus countenanced by Father Taylor in making a root of bitterness spring up beside their homes, which, under his care, a better spirit should sanctify. I think there can be no doubt that an influence so strong as his would avail to abolish this unchristian distinction of races within the walls of his own church; and it would elevate the character of his influence if the attempt were made” (348-49). However, Stevens, historian of the Methodist Episcopal Church, describes the perfect missionary with a different scene: “In a spacious and substantial chapel, crowded about by the worst habitations of the city, he delivered every sabbath, for years, discourses the most extraordinary, to assemblies also as extraordinary perhaps as could be found in the Christian world. In the centre column of seats, guarded sacredly against all other intrusion, sat a dense mass of mariners,–a strange medley of white, black, and olive,–Protestant, Catholic, and sometimes pagan, representing many languages, unable probably to comprehend each other’s vocal speech, but speaking there the same language of intense looks and flowing tears. On the other seats, in the galleries, the aisles, and the altar, and on the pulpit stairs, crowded, week after week, and year after year (among the families of sailors, and the poor who had no other temple), the élite of the city, the learned professor, the student, the popular writer, the actor, groups of clergymen, and the votaries of fashion, listening with throbbing hearts and wet eyes to the man whose chief training had been in the forecastle, whose only endowments were those of grace and nature, but whose discourses presented the strangest, the most brilliant exhibition of sense, epigrammatic thought, pathos, and humor, expressed in a style of singular pertinency, spangled over by an exhaustless variety of the finest images, and pervaded by a spiritual earnestness that subdued all listeners; a man who could scarcely speak three sentences, in the pulpit or out of it, without presenting a striking poetical image, a phrase of rare beauty, or a sententious sarcasm, and the living examples of whose usefulness are scattered over the seas” (367). Significantly, the authors compare Father Taylor to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (437). I am reminded of Melville in his conservative mood, situated as a stylist in the culture of popular evangelical religion.

[viii]             111. Matthiessen had already set this up earlier on page 426, following a portion of Ahab’s quarter-deck speech rendered in blank verse with the statement, “Starbuck’s meditation opens the next chapter: “My soul is overmanned…” He has excised the chapter “Sunset.”

[ix]              112. See my discussion of Melville’s Milton annotations above and their relevance for Ahab’s probable allusion to Eve, addressed by Satan as “Queen of this Universe.” Matthiessen is contradicting his response to Olson’s draft essay, that Melville could not have lacked the tragic sense.

[x]               113. Willard Thorp, Representative Selections, xci,cxviii.

[xi]              114. Rolfe has been taken by corporatist Melvilleans to be Melville’s true voice in Clarel.

[xii]             115. Matthiessen uses the word “inexorable” to sting Mapple’s and Ahab’s “inexorable self” that stands up to illegitimate authority.

[xiii]             116. Cf. Olson, M.A. Thesis, quoted above; also the chapter on Dana in D.H. Lawrence, Studies In Classic American Literature (New York: Seltzer, 1923). Matthiessen flunks White-Jacket as art: of all Melville’s early too-concrete works, it is “[the] most heavy and diffuse through its number of surface details.” When the right-wing modernists looked for equilibrium between matter and spirit, the lurking model giving specifity to their abstraction was the “dynamic equilibrium” between master and man, characterized by “reciprocity” before the rule of capital destroyed such bonds.

[xiv]             117. Henry W. Wells, “Herman Melville’s Clarel,” College English 4 (May 1943): 478-483; “An Unobtrusive Democrat: Herman Melville,” South Atlantic Quarterly 43 (Jan. 1944): 46-51.

[xv]             118. But see H.M. Bossard to Olson, 26 Mar. 1938, giving him the reference he requested on Jung’s analysis of Hitler, “Wotan: a psychologist explores the forces behind German fascism.”

[xvi]             119. Page references are to Thorp, Literary History of the U.S. (New York: Macmillan, rev. ed.,1974). Melville tried to reform the missionaries in his first works; by the late 1850s, in his lecture “The South Seas,”he advised Americans to leave primitives alone until the “civilized” had reformed themselves. Thorp’s Christian Socialist account would support the aims of the internationalism of the postwar upper-class peace movement by rebuking Pierre’s excessive idealism and rejection of pragmatism. See Thorp Representative Selections, xxxviii; Thorp, Literary History, 470. The strange union refers to the living arrangements of Pierre and Isabel (later joined by Lucy) in the city.

[xvii]            120. See Carol Gruber, Mars and Minerva; also The Report of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission to the Senate and House of Representatives, June 1939 which stated “For more than 50 years, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, has been recognized by our citizens not only for the outstanding part which he took in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, itself, not only for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for religious freedom, but also for the services he rendered in establishing the practical operation of the American Government as a democracy, and not an autocracy.”

[xviii]           121. I am not claiming a moral equivalency between the New Deal and fascism or Soviet communism; state murder is not the same as marginalization or unemployment or amnesia. As I have argued throughout, while diffuse anxiety and self-censorship characterizes postwar American culture, libraries remain open, though access to state secrets is still limited, with the result that conspiracy theories further pathologize our political culture.

[xix]             122. See Donald Davidson, “Where Are The Laymen? A Study in Policy-Making,” American Review 9 (Sept. 1937): 456-481. Davidson was protesting against mushrooming independent citizen policy groups in the South, loosely allied with, but also critical of, the Roosevelt administration. Davidson derisively typed these fact-finders as either neo-abolitionists or as top-down social planners. Scientific industrial society had destroyed the capacity of Jeffersonian democrats to participate in the major decisions of their lives. The New Left phrase “participatory democracy” may be indebted to such 1930s agrarian thought, proudly professed by Davidson as “fascist.”

[xx]             123. “From the Heart of Europe,” “revised early draft 2,” p. 10, Box 6, Matthiessen Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University. See From The Heart of Europe (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), 82. In 1937, Reinhold Niebuhr had written “…religion is forced to tell many little lies in the interest of a great truth, while science inclines to tell many little truths in the interest of a great lie. The great truth in the interest of which many little lies are told is that life and history have meaning and the source and the fulfillment of that meaning lie beyond history. The great lie in the interest of which science tells many little truths is that spatio-temporal realities are self-contained and self-explanatory and that a scientific description of sequences is an adequate analysis of causes.” “The Truth in Myths” is reprinted in Gail Kennedy, ed., Evolution and Religion: The Conflict Between Science and Theology in Modern America (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1957): 94.

[xxi]             124. Matthiessen, From The Heart of Europe, 182-183. Sidney Kaplan, a liberal Melville critic and Leyda admirer, criticized  Eleanor Metcalf’s politics but commended Matthiessen’s “wonderfully eloquent and (last) words on Melville” in a letter to Leyda 21 July 1950. Commenting on the difficulties of Benito Cereno, Kaplan wrote,I do intend to examine the whole Melville canon, including the Civil War writings. Warren, Hettinger and Arvin leave much to be said. Some time ago Mrs. Metcalf wrote me that the only thing of interest she had was a presentation copy of Battle Pieces from Melville to his wife…and a brick from Malvern Hill. “If what you write,” she added, “gives a wider circulation to the prose appendix to Battle Pieces, that in itself would be a great service to his memory and fine contribution to the thinking and feeling of these torn days.” I fear I shall disappoint her there; I am not sure that the appendix was or is worth much as a moral-political document. It has the alarming odor of Bennett’s Herald. As you suggest, however, I shall try to see Mrs. Metcalf and talk with her.”

[xxii]            125. But see Leo Marx, “Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F.O. Matthiessen,”Monthly Review 34 (Feb. 1983): 34-56. Marx believes that his teacher’s critical achievement (the recognition of contradictions) helped overcome the regnant organicism: “It signalled the virtual disappearance of the older complacent idea of our national culture as an essentially homogeneous, unified whole” (40). In my research, I have found no such complacency or sense of unity.  Marx discusses the context of Matthiessen’s suicide: personal loss (his lover Russell Cheney had died in 1945), and political persecution exacerbating a history of depression. By contrast, one prominent New Americanist critic sees Matthiessen as a consensus builder, papering over social conflict. See Donald Pease, Moby Dick and the Cold War,” The American Renaissance Reconsidered, ed. Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985): 113-155.

[xxiii]           126. Cf., Henry W. Wells, The American Way of Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943): 86; Wells (a founding member of the Melville Society) discusses Clarel as a revelation of America: “The section of Book One devoted to [the judaizing Nathan’s] past gives a vivid and circumstantial picture of many aspects of American life. Nathan’s pioneering family after migrating from Maine settled at last on the Illinois prairie. Here Nathan came into imaginative touch with the land on which he worked and with the Indian aborigines who preceded him. As a thinker he felt the force, in turn, of Tom Paine’s rationalism, of a narrow and fanatical sectarianism, of a transcendental nature-worship, and of the puritanical variety of Hebraism. This section of only ten pages constitutes a really remarkable epitome of no small part of America’s social and intellectual history.”

[xxiv]           127. Kenneth Murdock to Perry Miller, 12 Apr. 1950, Perry Miller Papers, Harvard University Archives.

[xxv]            128. W. Ellery Sedgwick Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University. There is another version, typed by Sedgwick’s colleague Theodore Spencer. I do not know the meaning of the line “Scribners 1932-36,” or the prefix P.C. which precedes the last verse which is written on the reverse of the page. Neither of these appears in the Spencer version.

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9 Comments »

  1. “McCarthyism” kills with astonishing speed: Herblock reportedly coined the term in a cartoon appearing on March 29, 1950; by April 1, Matthiessen was dead.

    Comment by Mark LaRochelle — March 29, 2014 @ 1:38 am | Reply

  2. [...] Today’s blog responds to recent questions raised about the mission of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but also to the President’s speech to the United Nations, that sought to remove any impression of American hubris. It will be seen that progressive educators have long worried about a sublime America that could go too far in challenging authority, looking for a middle-ground that may be entirely a product of overheated imaginations. (For a related blog, see http://clarespark.com/2010/10/09/david-riesman-v-friedrich-hayek/. For a detailed account of Matthiessen’s view of Herman Melville see http://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/.) [...]

    Pingback by Progressives and the teaching of American literature « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 6, 2013 @ 1:08 am | Reply

  3. [...] It was not that long ago that a Harvard professor as prestigious as F. O. Matthiessen could divide up humanity into the civilized and the savage, seeing this as a core conflict around which one could write literary history. But that was 1941, in his still read American Renaissance. And Matthiessen was no friend to American expansion.  (See http://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/). [...]

    Pingback by Thought police on Fox? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 25, 2012 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  4. [...] It is my view that the key to Billy Budd, if there is any one such thing, is the notion of a private faith, of a personal relation to the deity, that underlined the Promethean powers of our species—a power that Melville had annexed to the cause of peace and to immeasurable and messy creation itself, a power that F. O. Matthiessen seemingly rejected. See http://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/. [...]

    Pingback by Billy Budd’s ragged edges « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 17, 2011 @ 12:21 am | Reply

  5. [...] as a typical American “rugged individualist” by such as F. O. Matthiessen (see http://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/), or that dozens of New Leftists allege that symbols (language) create reality. For them, [...]

    Pingback by Groupiness « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 6, 2011 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  6. I enjoyed your paper although it has been a long time since I sstudied Matthiessen and looked into someof his papers in the Beineke(sp?) Library at Yale. I can’t remember if I went to the papers at the Houghton. But I am not in total agreement with your utter dismissal of McCarthyism as a factor in bringing on his suicide.However, his being gay and having a lover at a time when such matters were hardly discussed also had much to do with it. And there may be some relationship between McCarthyism and homophobia as often such matters did appear during the investigations. But your focus on Moby Dick and Ahab is impressive in its insights and commentary. I can’t find my copy of AR so I was unable to look at some of the quotatons. It has been a long long time over fifty years since I read AR. But thanks for a fine piece.

    Comment by MICHAEL WRESZIN — December 31, 2010 @ 7:01 pm | Reply

    • Professor Wreszin’s comment was much appreciated by me. My only reply is that such an extreme action as a suicide probably has many precipitating factors. I should not have given the impression that fear of anticommunist crusading after the war was irrelevant to Matthiessen’s leap from the hotel window to his death in 1950. The main purpose of my blog was to emphasize the role “Matty” played in the postwar condemnation of Ahab in favor of Ishmael.

      Comment by clarespark — December 31, 2010 @ 8:16 pm | Reply


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